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Sunday 4 January 2015


It's not easy being royal in the era of social media

As the Queen tops the poll for moral leadership, Charles still struggles for public support, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Prince Charles "isn't doing too well in the virtuous stakes, having tied with Cameron at only 8pc for best moral leadership, and come sixth in the race for worst, which goes to show that the spectre of Diana has not gone away"

That great Victorian journalist, Walter Bagehot, wasn't just a luminous, irreverent writer of exceptional depth and breadth, but all he wrote was grounded in his understanding of human nature. Hence, 137 years after his death, his timeless reflections on banking are still read by chancellors and governors, and his analysis of monarchy is still required reading for heirs to the British throne.

A realist who knew that man is not perfectible, Bagehot believed society could hope only to encourage the best and contain the worst - aspirations, he thought, were assisted by a constitutional monarchy.

Royalty was intelligible to the public, he said, because it was concentrated on "one person doing interesting actions", while with a republican government, attention was "divided between many, who are all doing uninteresting actions. Accordingly, so long as the human heart is strong and the human reason weak, royalty will be strong because it appeals to diffused feeling, and Republics weak because they appeal to the understanding".

Rupert Murdoch is one of those who has reluctantly had to come to terms with that basic truth. Although he's a devout anti-monarchist, he relies heavily on the royals to sell his papers. I laughed when I read the headline in his Sunday Times last week: "Queen takes 'most moral' leader title."

A YouGov poll had asked a sample of the public to choose three or four names from a list in response to the questions: "Who provides the best moral leadership?"

Queen Elizabeth scored 34pc, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge 30pc, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who won the Nobel Peace Prize, 19pc, the Archbishop of Canterbury 15pc and David Cameron came in fifth. A separate poll on the worst moral leadership was headed by five politicians (Nigel Farage, Cameron, Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband and Theresa May, the Home Secretary).

All of which was an interesting illustration of the truth of Bagehot's assertion in the 1860s: "We have come to regard the Crown as the head of our morality… to believe that it is natural to have a virtuous sovereign."

The only fly in the monarchical ointment was that Prince Charles isn't doing too well in the virtuous stakes, having tied with Cameron at only 8pc for best moral leadership, and come sixth in the race for worst, which goes to show that the spectre of Diana has not gone away.

The guy has led a life of unexceptionable public duty and his achievements include helping hundreds of thousands of young people into employment through the Prince's Trust.

In 2014, he undertook 533 public engagements at home and abroad, and his wife, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, who always wanted a quiet country life, showed up loyally on 224 occasions, but the British have a puritanical streak and his matrimonial scandal is neither forgiven nor forgotten.

Last week, there were media reports that a new play - Truth, Lies, Diana - would imply that Prince Harry's biological father was James Hewitt, one of his mother's lovers. Any fool knows that Fleet Street would have tested that rumour years ago with DNA tests and, indeed, it's been revealed that the now-defunct News of the World had a negative result in 2003 from a strand of Harry's hair. But conspiracy theorists won't believe that for a minute.

The heavy public criticism Charles has endured for having opinions is looked at sympathetically in King Charles III, a play that received rave reviews: the posters show Charles in full royal regalia with his mouth taped; and the story is of a constitutional crisis that arises when he's reluctant to sign a bill he thinks threatens press freedom and democracy.

It was ironic, therefore, that on New Year's Eve, there were media allegations that Charles had blocked the BBC's Reinventing the Royals, a documentary about how, after Diana's death in 1997, he and his PR people set about rebuilding his reputation and winning the public over to Camilla. Amid rumours that it was a hatchet job, there were nonsensical denunciations by a couple of Labour MPs of "sinister censorship" and "dangerous precedents". In fact, the programme has been delayed as lawyers squabble about the use of archive footage.

Additionally, at the end of last week, there were widespread reports that in court papers in Florida, Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, has been accused of having sex with a minor and attending an orgy.

Since Andrew isn't party to the court action and therefore can't defend himself in court, Buckingham Palace - which usually keeps its lip buttoned - has felt it necessary to issue a statement saying the allegation that he was involved in "impropriety with under-age minors is categorically untrue".

As Bagehot pointed out, "a family on the throne" is a matter of fascination for ordinary people, so there will be dozens more such stories during 2015. This year, the Queen (who carried out 393 official engagements last year) should live to September to surpass - at 89 - Queen Victoria's record of longest-reigning monarch.

Social media will continue to be alive with allegations and denunciations as hysterics stampede to judgement on royal tittle-tattle. Here Bagehot gets the last word too, for, as he explained, "being without an opinion is so painful to human nature that most people will leap to hasty opinion rather than undergo it".

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards